Artist, social reformer and women’s rights campaigner, Barbara Bodichon

Today, 8 April, marks the birth date of Barbara Bodichon, nee Leigh Smith. An artist, social reformer, women’s rights campaigner and co-founder of Girton College, Cambridge, Barbara Bodichon challenged the status quo from day one and is an important figure in our 100 Pioneering Blogs of Sussex series.

Barbara Bodichon, from a sketch made in 1861. Portrait by Samuel Lawrence, 1880

Born in Whatlington near Battle, 8 April 1827, as the illegitimate daughter of a Derbyshire milliner and the politician Benjamin Leigh Smith, she was born in disgrace, yet her outsider status and exposure to unconventional thinking in her family (her parents never married despite having three more children) set the seeds for a remarkable life of challenging the norms and restrictions that women lived under.

Despite being a member of the landed gentry, Benjamin Leigh Smith held radical views and was a benefactor of the poor. He sent his children to be educated at local schools, brought them up himself when Bodichon’s mother died in 1834, and, controversially for the day when family fortunes and property were bequeathed to sons, settled the same amount of money on Bodichon as he did his sons on their twenty-first birthdays.

This enabled Bodichon to avoid the pitfalls of seeking marriage that usually fell to young Victorian women.  Instead she used her wealth and energy not only to explore her intellectual and artistic pursuits, studying painting at Bedford Square Ladies College in 1849, but to agitate for women’s rights.  From 1850 with her group of friends and fellow early feminists who formed the so-called ‘Ladies of Langham Place’ group, now considered one of the first organised women’s movements in the country, she explored, discussed and publicised issues of equality, particularly pertaining to the many ways women were discriminated against by the law.

One of the issues they deplored was the fact that, upon marriage, every single ounce of women’s property, including money, belongings, inheritances and even future earnings was automatically given up to the husband to spend, fritter away or use as he wished. In 1854 Bodichon spelled out these bitter realities in a book, the Brief Summary of the Laws of England Concerning Women. This meticulously researched list of all the different laws that put women at a disadvantage was the first time the public had been exposed to a clear understanding of the legal position of women. With the genie well and truly out of the bottle, the issue quickly became a national talking point and a committee was formed by the Law Amendment Society to investigate. The Ladies of Langham Place started their own Married Women’s Property Committee which became a nation-wide campaign group. In 1856 – in what’s now considered one of the first organised feminist actions in Britain – a petition demanding change was submitted to the House of Lords.  It was rejected that year but smoothed the way for a limited enactment in 1870 and the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, which allowed married women to own and control property in their own right.

The workplace was another arena where Bodichon and her friends called for change. With women’s work largely consisting of ill paid drudge and women largely barred from university education and most careers, Bodichon published in 1857 a radical pamphlet, Women and Work in which she called for equality of education and work opportunities, challenging the prevailing opinion that employment wasn’t appropriate for respectable women and suggesting that married women’s financial dependence on their husbands was degrading.  In 1858, now married to French doctor, Eugene Bodichon, she co-founded with her friend, the feminist Bessie Rayner Parkes, the English Woman’s Journal, which discussed, developed, and publicised further the employment and equality issues she had developed in Women and Work.  Linked to this, in 1859 she co-founded, with women’s rights campaigner Jessie Boucherett and philanthropist Adelaide Ann Proctor, The Society for Promoting the Employment of Women with the aim of promoting women’s training and apprenticeships.

Bodichon had already made inroads in education by opening a progressive infants school in London where children learned together regardless of their social class in 1854. She worked to make higher education a possibility for women by developing with Emily Davies an experimental college for women at Hitchin. This developed into the 1869 established Girton College, the first women’s college at Cambridge University, although female students had to wait until 1948 to gain full membership of the University.

Although Bodichon was not the first woman to agitate for the vote, she co-drafted with Boucherett and feminist Helen Taylor a petition in favour of women’s suffrage in 1865. It was presented to the House of Commons by John Stuart Mill MP in 1866 but was defeated.  In 1869 after publishing  ‘Reasons for and against the Enfranchisement of Women’, Bodichon toured the country, appearing at meetings and giving speeches in favour of votes for women.  After retirement to her house at Scalands Gate (now called Scalands Folly) in Sussex in 1882, she built an extension to her house to serve as a reading room, library and night school for young working men who could not read or write.

As well as her incredible activities fighting for women’s rights, Bodichon, somehow, found the time for a career as an artist. Her work was exhibited at the Royal Society and was widely admired. Her London salon was a meeting ground of the greatest talents, political, literary and artistic, of the day, including the writer George Eliot who became one of her closest friends, early physician and fellow Hastings resident, Dr Helen Blackwell, the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Hastings painter Marianne North and Dante Gabriel Rossetti Rossetti. Some of Bodichon’s paintings can be seen today at Hastings Museum.

Ventnor, Isle of Wight, Barbara Bodichon, 1856

Bodichon died in 1891 after a life of tireless service to bettering the lot of women and fighting for a more just society. Despite her remarkable and wide ranging achievements, she seems to have fallen out of the canon of great Victorian reformers and is not the household name she deserves to be. In 2007 feminist campaigner, Lesley Abdela came across Bodichon’s grave in the Brightling churchyard in a state of disrepair. The historian Dr Judith Rowbotham issued an appeal for funds to restore the grave and its surrounds and under the eye of Mrs Irene Baker, the Secretary of Brightling Parochial Church Council the grave was repaired and restored.

As an interesting side note, Bodichon was related by her paternal uncle to Florence Nightingale who never acknowledged her due to her illegitimacy.

Written by social hstorian, Louise Peskett

2 Responses

  1. Jane Elliott

    Really interesting. Sadly I’d never heard of her which just goes to show… Thanks for resurrecting her memory.

  2. Louise Peskett

    Yesterday I found out from Nicola Benge of fantastic local arts and heritage group, Strike A Light, that there’s not just one Barbara Bodichon in our history but two! The second one, named after the original, lived between 1886 and 1950, and was a suffragist and Labour politician. She’s part of the Shalom Sussex project which shines a light on the Jewish community during the First World War:
    shalomsussex.co.uk/research/hertha-ayrton/

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